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North Branch Nature Center Offers Virtual Walks

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Highbush cranberry - COURTESY OF SEAN BECKETT
  • courtesy of Sean Beckett
  • Highbush cranberry

This spring, staffers at North Branch Nature Center have made it a mission to help families remain healthy and engaged in the natural world — despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. To that end, the Montpelier-based center has embarked on a new project: creating a series of virtual nature walks, intended to offer families guidance on what to look for on less-traveled paths.

In April, Sean Beckett, director of natural history programming, spent a few hours pedaling his bike around Berlin Pond, snapping photos and taking notes, to create the first virtual nature walk. Located just off Crosstown Road, the five-mile Berlin Pond loop is easily accessible, with a wide dirt road well suited for physical distancing. Since most visitors walk only the first mile, Beckett chose to focus on that stretch. This 270-acre pond is Montpelier's city water supply and one of the few remaining undeveloped water bodies in Vermont. Loons nest along these waters, and visitors sometimes spy ospreys and bald eagles — endangered species in Vermont.

The virtual walk, which can be accessed through the North Branch Nature Center website, features eight photographs of interesting plants and animals visitors may spot along the way. Each photo is paired with a short, informative write-up.

One image shows a willow pine cone gall — a small growth on a twig that looks like a cross between a pine cone and a miniature rose. Beckett explained that galls are created by an infection caused by a tiny midge, a type of fly. The midge lays its egg in the willow branch. After the egg hatches and the larva develops, the willow produces a layered covering around the larva to protect it. Eventually, the midge emerges into the world through tiny bore holes. Different galls appear on plants and trees all over Vermont.

Willow pine cone gall - COURTESY OF SEAN BECKETT
  • courtesy of Sean Beckett
  • Willow pine cone gall

Beckett's naturalist eye also spotted red highbush cranberries, a fluorescent orange-and-brown early moth called the infant, and hooded merganser ducks with striking tufted head feathers.

These flora and fauna can be found in other natural spots around Vermont, as well. The point of the virtual nature walk, said Beckett, is to make Vermonters more aware of their outdoor surroundings.

The second walk in the series was created by North Branch teacher-naturalist Ken Benton. It takes viewers on an outing to the Barre City Cow Pasture, a mile-and-a-half loop through former farm fields and across a forest stream. The virtual walk identifies natural elements such as coltsfoot, one of the first spring flowers in Vermont. Signs of local history are also visible on this walk. Benton notes stone walls winding through the woods. Rusted barbed wire is visible in places, an indication that these former pasture lands were used for cattle and not sheep. Farmers avoided mixing wire fence with sheep, as the barbs caught on these woolly creatures.

A third virtual walk featuring North Branch River Park was posted in late April. More walks are in the works for May, with plans to highlight lightly traveled areas where early-season butterflies, frog ponds and a vernal pool can be found.

Thanks to a donor, the center's website is now completely accessible to the public without the usual requested donation. The site includes many educational, nature-based activities. One option is the Vermont Spring Backyard BioBlitz, which runs through May 20. Naturalists of all experience levels and ages are invited to submit their observations of any wild organism — no pets or garden plants — through the free iNaturalist app. The app, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, encourages participants to share information, connect with experts who can help identify organisms, and learn about nature from other people's observations. It also generates data about the natural world to aid in conservation efforts.

When you head outside, the center asks participants to follow four ground rules on nature walks:

  • Follow recommended social-distancing guidelines and remain at least six feet from other visitors.
  • Keep pets on leashes and at least six feet from others.
  • Look, but don't touch. Handling fragile plants or animals may harm them.
  • If you live far away, consider visiting a location closer to your home.
Find more information at northbranchnaturecenter.org.

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